Sound System Culture In New York City – From Dub to Techno and Beyond

Dubspot contributor Mike Styels gives us the low down on some of the best electronic music sound systems in New York City, including Tower of Sound and Tsunami Bass.

It was like a ghost had passed through me. It might not have been the holy ghost, but it was something of an awakening: I could feel the music and understand it as I never had before. It resonated physically in my body while fine details sparkled with full clarity. This wasn’t a revelation helped along by popular drugs. It was sound being presented as it’s meant to be heard: on a quality system, maintained and operated by skilled professionals, and played by a knowledgeable DJ.

Finding good sound can be a real challenge in New York. The city has a history of great-sounding rooms, from the Paradise Garage and Sound Factory to Twilo and Love. But compared to scenes in Europe, things can seem downright anemic. A partygoer is often stuck between an affordable night at a space with horrible sound, or getting stuck with a scary bill at a place that’s easy on the ears.

“NYC lacks proper clubs that have good sound systems and really care about the music. And most of them are reluctant to book acts that are doing something new or on the fringe, but don’t necessarily bring in the bucks,” says Brenmar, a Brooklyn-based DJ and producer.

Q from Sound Liberation Front shares a similar sentiment, so he built a mobile sound system called the Tower Of Sound to open people’s ears to quality sound without emptying their pockets. “I’m really keen on using it for block parties,” says Q,” because the heart of sound system culture is this idea of providing sound and entertainment for the community, so you don’t have to go to a club and pay a big cover and buy high priced drinks to enjoy music the way it’s supposed to be experienced.”

However, building a Tower is not financially viable for most. The $20,000 to $30,000 it took to build came from his personal savings, and recouping those costs was never a part of his plan.

The Tsunami Bass sound system is another local rig built as a love project. Its creators spent their life savings on it and are nowhere near making back their money through rentals and parties. But they’d like to, and they express frustration with promoters who spend thousands on big name headliners but won’t pay extra for high quality sound. “It’s [totally idiotic] how much most promoters pay for headliners but then skimp on sound,” fumes Shizaru Zoe.

New York is an expensive place. Cielo, which has a top-ranked system installed, struggles to balance a love for music with the need to appeal to the bottle service crowd that pervades their neighborhood. District 36, whose sound was put together by the late Gary Stuart (known for Love and Zouk’s sound), recently shuttered its doors.

Some people see a renewed value being placed on sound, despite these challenges. Praveen Sharma from Sepalcure notes that many venues opened over the past decade were primarily rock oriented and didn’t see the need to invest in good sound. Fortunately, he thinks that’s beginning to change. “The arrival of new spaces focused on sound, like Output and TBA, are forcing other Brooklyn venues to upgrade their own sound or face the harsh reality of losing their bookings,” says Sharma. In Queens, System Dance Club has some of the most highly regarded sound in New York, built by Systems by Shorty.

It should be noted, however, that it’s not just the gear that’s important, but also the people running it. “I’ve heard a $10,000 sound system sound amazing…and a $100,000 rig sound [terrible],” points out Morphous from Tsunami Bass. When running his system, he monitors and tweaks it all night.

DJs are accountable as well. “It’s just staggering how many DJs will drive the mixers into the red,” Funktion One’s Tony Andrews explained to Resident Advisor. “If you drive them into them red…How can I put this? The whole thing’s [ruined] before you even start!”

So how can we encourage more venues with a wider range of tastes and price points to step up their sound game? “The enthusiasts need to speak up,” says Tsunami’s Zoe (sound sytem for Reconstruvct, Dub War and others).  “Demand quality sound from promoters!”

Artists can also demand quality sound in their riders, adds Greenpoint Sound’s Jake Lewis. The best approach is to focus on details instead of brand.  For example, artists should require a system that covers a specific frequency and decibel range. They should also demand that the speakers be set up to play well with the room’s acoustics, and that a qualified engineer be present to operate the system.

“If it sounds really good and the show is really bumping,” says Lewis, “nobody’s looking at speaker labels.”